Before his team played Syracuse last year, Seton Hall standout Jeremy Hazell issued some words of warning to Orange forward Wes Johnson.
"You better guard me," Hazell told his opponent, "because I won't hesitate to take an open shot – even if it's from half-court."
Anyone who has followed Hazell's career knows he wasn't joking. The 6-foot-5 senior from Harlem finished third in the Big East in scoring last year with 20.4 points a game – but he also likely led the league in selfish, ill-advised shots.
"Every time I touch the ball, I think it's going in," Hazell said. "My mindset has always been to shoot."
While it often helped, Hazell's confidence and aggressiveness also hurt Seton Hall at times last season. The Pirates had the talent of an NCAA tournament team, but instead they finished 19-13 and settled for the NIT, where they lost in the first round to Texas Tech.
A frustrated Hazell entered his name in the NBA draft last spring, but he changed his mind when Seton Hall fired hot-tempered coach Bobby Gonzalez and replaced him with Iona's Kevin Willard. A former assistant under Rick Pitino, Willard's goal is to develop Hazell into a more well-rounded player.
His efforts already seem to be paying off.
Hazell spent a large chunk of his offseason watching old game tapes. He said he was stunned at how many off-balance shots he took with an opponent's hand in his face when a simple pass to an open teammate would’ve resulted in an easy two points.
"Coach Willard said I still have the green light," Hazell said. "But he's making me understand that it's OK to go ahead and make that pass sometimes instead of shooting a tough shot.
"He got me in the flow of getting my teammates open. A lot of times the shots they'll get [as a result] will be better than mine."
Willard is glad Hazell has taken on a more team-oriented mentality, but he also realizes old habits are hard to break. He said the worst thing that could happen would be for Hazell to lose the "edge" that has made him one of the most-feared players in the Big East the past two years. Hazell averaged 22.7 points as a sophomore.
"I'm not going to pull his reins in at all," Willard said. "What people are going to see is that Jeremy has a lot more confidence in his teammates now. He's never been afraid to take the big ones and I don't think he will be now.
"It's not easy to find a kid that will step up and take those shots – especially a kid that can make them."
Gaudy as Hazell's statistics have been the past few years, there's a chance his production could elevate even higher during his final year at Seton Hall. Hazell said more than half of the Pirates' practice time this fall has been spent working on defense, which was not a point of emphasis under Gonzalez.
Given Seton Hall's length and athleticism, no one would be surprised if players such as Hazell scored a handful of baskets each game off of turnovers by their opponent. Hazell said he hopes the defensive intensity leads to a few more W's.
Seven of the Pirates' 13 losses last season were by single digits.
"We can score with anyone," Hazell said. "But at the end of the game, in crunch time, we haven't been able to get stops. All you have to do is keep your guy in front of you. I think that's the biggest difference you'll see with our team this year."
Seton Hall was picked to finish 11th in the preseason Big East coaches poll. The ranking was a bit of a surprise considering the Pirates return all five starters from a squad that tied for ninth last season.
Hazell is the Big East's leading returning scorer, and Herb Pope averaged a league-best 10.7 rebounds as a sophomore. Jeff Robinson (12.2 points) and Eniel Polynice, a former starter at Ole Miss, also stand out on a roster that features six seniors.
Seton Hall is seeking its first NCAA berth since 2006.
"It feels good to be picked 11th," Hazell said. "I'd rather be the hunter than the hunted. We want to make the NCAA tournament for the five other seniors and for me – and for the Seton Hall family. I think you'll see a different team out there this year."
And in some ways, a different Hazell.
"I'm not going to take all those bad shots I took last year," he said. "That's for sure."
- Seton Hall